The HMNS School of Rock: Cracking Caveman Crafts in the Classroom

Today’s guest post was written by Dr. Gus Costa, Geoarchaeologist at Rice University and Paleoarts Educator/Owner of The Flintstone Factory

The ascent of humankind is an unlikely story of a clawless, small-toothed primate prevailing in a brutish world of horrific beasts. How did our ancestors compete with lions, tigers and bears? More importantly, how would you cope with similar hardships in the wild without modern amenities? Just think camping without any of your essentials. That’s right! No air conditioned RV or battery-powered margarita maker. Sounds pretty miserable, huh?

Humans are addicted to material culture. We need our “stuff.” We need it so badly that we would die without it. Even the most austere, anti-materialist Tibetan monk needs a coat and shoes when he goes outdoors. Thomas Carlyle (1884) said it best, “man is a tool-using animal…without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.” Our dependence on stuff as a means of adaptation is what makes us special. Yet this “all or nothing” strategy also makes us particularly vulnerable, especially if many of us cannot make what we need to survive. Modern people are very accomplished tool users, but rarely are we tool makers. Even the contemporary hunter-survivalist culture is inherently consumerist. What happens to human self-reliance when all the fancy bells and whistles are taken away?

The Discovery Channel show “Naked and Afraid” provides an excellent case in point. This TV program follows two survival experts who are tasked with living in the wild, completely nude for 21 days! Participants are allowed to bring one helpful item each. As one would expect, somebody always brings some kind of cutting tool (survival knife, machete, axe etc.). This TV show clearly demonstrates that: 1) even survival experts probably wouldn’t last long in the wild without any gear and most importantly, 2) a cutting implement is the most essential item a human can possess in the wild.

For more than 99% of human existence, stone tools (knives, hammers, axes, spear-tips, arrowheads, etc.) have provided a critical advantage to an otherwise poorly equipped animal. Our distant ancestors may have been naked, but they weren’t afraid because they knew how to make stone knives and other essentials needed for survival.

Factory-made modern cutting implements versus hand crafted, all natural paleo-cutlery (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory

Factory-made modern cutting implements versus hand crafted, all natural paleo-cutlery (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory

Stone tools are part of everyone’s heritage. Regardless of who you are at some point in the past your ancestors made and used stone tools. It’s an international tradition, not just something that Native American used to do. The oldest artifacts known are 2.6 million year old stone tools from Africa. Yet several contemporary peoples still employ stone tools in traditional activities. In short, flaked stone technology is the most persistent human practice known and was the essential skill largely responsible for the survival of our species………. So why don’t we know more about it?

The Stone Age is the longest and most mysterious phase of the human story largely due to the durability of stone relative to other biodegradable materials. Items made of perishable materials (wood, bamboo, bone) were surely important, but these organic clues have decayed and vanished over the millennia. Much like diamonds, stone tools are forever. Stone tool “fashions” have also changed through time and from place to place, so they can be used by scientists as chronological markers in addition to shedding light on ancient human behavior.

Flaked stone tools are made by fracturing naturally occurring rocks with glass-like properties (brittle, hard and uniform silica-based stones like cherts, flints and obsidian). This process is called knapping, a word of Germanic origin meaning to break by a sharp blow (not to be confused with siesta style napping). Knapping was a cultural universal among all human populations until about 8,000 years ago, when metallurgy emerged and metal artifacts replaced stone tools.

Flint knapping in action (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory)

Flint knapping in action (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory)

Despite being a major caveman past time, knapping is more complex than most people realize. Locating the proper type of stone requires geological and geographical knowledge. Knapping also demands a basic understanding of physics. The trick behind knapping is the successful manipulation of a “hertzian cone”—a type of fracture commonly seen in car windshields. Hertzian cones are produced because force propagates equally in all directions in uniform materials. Just like a water drop in a pool – energy radiates in a symmetrical manner through glassy substances. Controlling the direction and magnitude of this phenomenon allows the knapper to “sculpt” stone into a finished tool, by using a variety of techniques and knapping tools.

Direct freehand knapping with a stone hammer is the most basic approach, although antler, bone or wood may also be used to remove stone flakes or chips. By the later stages of prehistory, knappers discovered that focused pressure with a pointed implement was an effective way to finish and sharpen tools. Arrowheads and other projectile points were often completed by pressure flaking with deer antler tines.

Tools of the trade. Traditional flint knapping tools Left hammerstones, Right Deer antler and wooden batons. Below Large composite pressure flaker. (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory)

Tools of the trade. Traditional flint knapping tools Left hammerstones, Right Deer antler and wooden batons. Below Large composite pressure flaker. (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory)

There are many other intricacies to the lost art of knapping. Replicating prehistoric stone tools is extremely powerful and enlightening activity that is much more difficult than one might expect. After more than a decade of knapping and a Ph.D. in Paleolithic archaeology, I have not yet progressed far beyond the Neanderthal stage of technical complexity!

A two million year old Early Stone Age knife is the most rudimentary technology known. It’s so easy that a caveman could do it. In fact, even captive chimpanzees have learned to make these basic tools! But could you? Are you smarter than your prehistoric ancestors?

If you enjoy history, science, technology, art, and breaking things – I invite you to put your highly evolved brain to the test by joining me on Wednesday December 4th for our first HMNS “School of Rock.” This HMNS Adult Education class (must be older than 16) will teach you the prehistoric skills needed to master the ancient art of stone tool making. Discover how antler, stone and bone can be used to fashion a paleo-survival knife through proper percussion and pressure methods. Learn how to make an arrowhead by pressure alone and a simple stone knife using traditional hand tools. Your lithic art is yours to keep for your collection. Participants should wear long pants and close-toed shoes. All materials, tools, and safety equipment will be provided by The Flintstone Factory.

Let’s see you test your wit and grit against that of your “primitive” ancestors!

“Reinventing Stone Age Tools”
Wednesday, December 4, 6 p.m.
Tickets $80, Members $65
Paleolithic archaeologist Gus Costa will teach the prehistoric skills needed to master the ancient art of stone tool making. Using traditional hand tools, craft a simple stone knife that is yours to keep for your collection.

For tickets, click here or call 713.639.4629.


Do you dig historic Houston? TxDOT and Join the Houston Archeology Society August 17!

While the Texas Department of Transportation — aka TxDOT — is tasked with providing safe and reliable transportation solutions for the traveling public, the agency is also committed to preserving the environment and its history. The Dimond Knoll site (41HR796) was discovered in northwestern Harris County in the fall of 1996 by a team of archaeologists conducting an initial cultural resources survey on behalf of TxDOT for a portion of the Grand Parkway.  From the beginning of May to the end of October 2012, TxDOT sponsored extensive data-recovery investigations at the site, concluding that the site had been visited regularly by mobile foraging groups for nearly 10 millennia, with artifacts spanning the Late Paleoindian period (ca. 8000 BC) through the Late Prehistoric (ca. 1500 AD).

Image courtesy txHAS

Once archaeologists extensively examined the upper sediment deposits of the knoll through meticulous hand excavation, a larger sample of the older, deeply buried cultural deposits in the lower sediments was investigated by first stripping away the remaining sandy mantle.  These upper sediments were removed from discretely defined block areas through closely monitored machine stripping.  TxDOT, working in cooperation with the Houston Archeological Society, then moved the stripped sediments to an off-site location for screening. Through this effort, a larger sample of informative artifacts were retrieved, allowing archaeologists to achieve a more accurate understanding of prehistoric lifeways in the Houston region.

The TxDOT/HAS screening project has evolved into a tremendously successful public outreach effort. Dozens of HAS members have signed up for the project since its start in early February. Participants from the Brazosport and Fort Bend archaeological societies have also joined the project, as well as anthropology/archaeology students and professors from several local colleges, including the University of Houston, St. Thomas University, Houston Community College and Lone Star College. The project has also been host to school groups from Rosehill Christian Academy and the Kinkaid School. The project has generated outstanding word of mouth, encouraging the participation of many people who have wanted to be archaeologists since childhood but have never had the opportunity.  All the artifacts recovered at the screening site will be cataloged, analyzed, curated and reported, along with those recovered in the hand-excavated sample from the site.

Through its commitment to environmental preservation, TxDOT is excited to partner with the HMNS and HAS in offering this unique opportunity to actively participate in the discovery of Houston’s rich prehistoric past, making historic preservation a collective achievement. This event is planned for August 17. Space is limited and advance registration is required. Click here for more information.

Oh, just another day in the life of exhibits: Installation in pictures (with inanimate commentary)

Done any home improvement projects lately? Us, too! This Monday we installed two new nautical creatures in the new Hall of Paleontology, and we documented one of the installs for you fine people.


DSC_0002Know what he is? He’s a ginormous Eurypterid, otherwise known as a sea scorpion. We don’t know about y’all, but we’re pretty glad these thingers are extinct. I mean, he’s a whopper (and he looks angry):


Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple was on-hand for the install. Here he is giving Eury a pep-talk. We imagine he’s saying something like “No, your chelicerae don’t look big in this sling.”

DSC_0017You’ve got to have velvet hands to be a handy-man at HMNS. Eury, meanwhile, is #overit.


Up, up and away!

DSC_0029Buckle up, Eury. You’re about to go for a ride.

DSC_0041“Do you even know what you’re doing?”

DSC_0071And finally, we’re finished!


Come meet Eury for yourself at the new Hall of Paleontology. We’re open late today (Tuesday) — ’til 8 p.m.!

Bakker blogs: Bulldozer worms and the end of peace on the ocean floor

Life first evolved about 3.5 billion years ago, at the beginning of the Precambrian Eras. At first, life was made up of simple microbes (bacteria) that could survive horrible conditions, including acid oceans and no oxygen in the air or water.

For 2.7 billion years, the sea bottom remained (mostly) peaceful, quiet and flat. Microbes built wide mats that sealed the mud surface, stabilizing the sediment.  Advanced microbes like blue-green algae began pumping oxygen into the atmosphere and ocean. The microbes had few enemies — no big, energetic animals disturbed the bottom. Day after day, week after week, year after year, bits of sediment kept falling down through the ocean water. The clay and silt continued to make layer after layer of sediment, and the ecosystem was stubbornly two-dimensional — all life lived on the surface or the bottom.  The subsurface was empty.

Then, around 700 million years ago, the Vendian Period began. A few life forms like Charnia and its kin got up to a half a foot tall, acquiring the shape of bloated feather plumes. Still, no one was churning up the mud or otherwise disturbing the microbial mats.

cactus worm left
Life in the Pre-Cambrian still was lovely, idyllic and BORING!

Today’s oceans teem with life forms that burrow through the bottom mud and live in cleverly constructed holes. Thousands of creatures, large and small, plow through the sediment looking for food. Plowers and burrowers include snails and bristle worms, long-necked clams and sea-cucumbers, plus a bewildering variety of groups without common names. The Precambrian world was totally devoid of all this action.

Finally and suddenly 540 million years ago, the Precambrian peace was broken. The Vendian Period ended when the microbial mats were attacked and ripped apart. Holes were excavated down into the mud. Bottom sediment was churned up. The long reign of the soft, quiet, two-dimensional world at last was terminated.

cactus worm right
The Cambrian Explosion had begun.

From this moment on, the rules of life were changed, and the ecosystem went into 3D. Dozens of new species evolved to take advantage of living deep in the mud. Other species hunted the species in the mud. Still more species swam above the surface looking for prey hiding below. Trilobites appeared and flourished. Fishy-things evolved.

Who destroyed the Precambrian mats? Who released the potential of evolution? Where do we send the thank-you note?

The fossil burrows are clues. At the end of the Vendian and the beginning of the Cambrian Period, U-shaped burrows appear all over the globe wherever shallow seas existed. Something was diving down through the mats and coming back up, again and again. This was the burrower who was destroying the ancient system of mats.

There are suspects alive today that make U-shaped burrows quite like the ones that ripped apart the Vendian bottom. Usually these critters are no bigger than a small pickle. Under the microscope, these burrowers look as fierce as the man-eating worms in the movie Tremors — the beasts have stout, muscular bodies with a face that carries a scary array of hooks and barbs. When they bump into prey, the hooks snag on their victim and the whole face inverts, dragging the meal into the throat.

800px-Priapulus_caudatusThe cactus worm, close-up.

You can find these mini-monsters in the mud in most oceans. Technically, they are called “Priapulida,” but they have many nick-names. Our favorite is “cactus worms.”  Because they have no bones or hard shells, cactus worms have almost zero chance of being fossilized unless there are very special conditions. The cactus worm would have to be buried instantly by an underwater landslide that killed the worm and sealed it under a thick blanket of sediment,  keeping out any scavengers.

For the first century of paleontological explorations, up until 1909, no one could find such an avalanche bed. Then Dr. Charles Doolittle Walcott, Cambrian expert from the Smithsonian Institution, hiked up into the Canadian Rockies near Burgess Peak in British Columbia.  He was looking for Cambrian trilobites, his specialty. He found what he was looking for flattened in dark slabs of clay, but there were other species, too — animals with no shell or hard parts at all.

Most exciting were the worms. Dozens of kinds of worms. Worms that ate microbes. Worms that ate trilobites. Worms that ate other worms (“Lutheran Worms”). Walcott had found the Holy Grail of Cambrian history.

But was there evidence of cactus worms? Yes!

Now we knew for certain that cactus worms had thrived in the transition from Vendian to Cambrian. We could be sure that these worms had overturned the Precambrian peace and begun the Cambrian Explosion.

They may be ugly, but remember these little creatures; they were the dynamos that restructured the oceanic world.